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DIALOGUES CONCERNING INNATE PRINCIPLES.
AN EXAMINATION OF MR. LOCKE’S
DOCTRINE ON THAT SUBJECT.
BY THE AUTHOR OF
THREE DIALOGUES CONCERNING LIBERTY
Maximeque aestimare conscientiam mentis fuae, quam ab diis immortalibus accepimus, quae a nobis divelli non potest:
quae si optimorum consiliorum atque factorum testis in omni vita nobis erit, sine ullo metu et summa cum honestate vivemus.
…And must think that consciousness implanted in one’s mind, which we have received from the immortal gods, and which cannot be taken from us, to be the most powerful motive of all. And if that is a witness of virtuous counsels and virtuous actions throughout our whole lives, we shall live without any fear, and in the greatest honor.
CICERO, Oratio pro et CLUENTIO.[i]
PRINTED FOR J. DODSLEY, PALL-MALL; J. SEWELL,
CORNHILL, and W. FOX, HOLBOURN.
AFTER a sultry day, there is something peculiarly grateful and pleasing, said I to my friend, in the cool temperature of the evening air.
Let us, then, take a turn, said he, for this I think is such an evening, and after such a day as you describe.
We went out, walking gently on until we reached an agreeable eminence, from whence we contemplated, for some time, the beautiful serenity and clearness of the sky; the softness and stillness of the trees; and the pleasing silence which reigned around us, the sun sensibly descending below the horizon on the one hand; and the enlarged moon ascending on the other. Then, moving downwards into a fine vale, we entered under a long row of very lofty trees, whose tops, joining over a neat walk, cast a thick shade within: along the side flowed slowly on, a deep and limpid stream reflecting the moon, which shot sideways through the trees. We soon found ourselves impressed with that pleasing gloom and sober thoughtfulness which such scenes do naturally inspire as night approaches.
I do not wonder, said my friend, at what we hear of the dread and terror with which guilty souls are said so frequently stricken, when alone in the dead of night: for how sensibly are we affected by the mild solemnity of this evening scene! How naturally do our minds turn inward upon themselves, pensive and reflecting!
Darkness and silence exclude the exercise of our two most active and diverting senses, sight and hearing. Those pleasing and amusing faculties, being thus rendered inactive, and their power of diverting our thoughts being thus taken away; conscience will make her attacks with superior advantage, and will be found too hard for impudence to silence, or artifice to keep under. She will shake the weak fabric of a guilty mind to its very foundations. At such times, happy are they who can rejoice in a good conscience; for that alone can give our minds due steadiness and constancy.
All this may be true, said I. But if, as Mr. Locke[ii] advances, conscience be no innate principle, but only “our own opinion or judgment of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own actions;” and that opinion be formed in us by the “education, company and customs of our country;” and if “some men can prosecute what others avoid with the same bent of conscience,” even to the committing of the most enormous crimes, “without any remorse at all;”[iii] then those terrors which you ascribe to a guilty, and that steadiness which you give to a good conscience, cannot be understood to prove any thing to be really good, or evil, in the nature of the things for which conscience may thus approve or condemn a man; conscience being nothing more than what every man for himself fancies it to be; no innate, steady, or general, principle in human nature.
True, said he ironically. And so a man may be a confirmed villain with a clear and good conscience; and a very honest fellow with a very bad one. What strange errors do the greatest men sometimes run into!
Even the errors of such men, replied I, are respectable, at least so far as to deserve the pains of a serious refutation, on account of their great credit and other extraordinary qualities. I have often heard you disapprove of his arguments against innate principles, and of his notions concerning morals in general: and I have on that account very lately read those parts of his essay, which treat of them in particular, and other relative parts: and although I do not find myself convinced by him, yet am I not able, easily, to point out the fallacy of his reasoning on those important subjects. I will now, therefore, beg the favour of you to show me wherein you differ from him, if it will not be disagreeable to you.
Not at all, replied he, unless the great ingenuity and acuteness of our author should happen to make it so.
Do you, then, interrogated I, maintain the reality of innate principles? I do, answered he in a firm tone; and I hope, for the sake of sound morals and of truth, important objects with you, to convince you of that reality.
After a long pause, he went on thus:
When I take a general view of the arguments adduced by Mr. Locke against innate moral principles; and when I see what he produces as the most indisputable innate principles, “if any be so,” I am inclined to think there must have been some very great mistake as to the true nature of the things in question: for he lays down certain propositions (no matter whether moral or scientific, so they be but true), and then proves that such propositions, considered merely as propositions formed by our rational faculty, after due consideration of things, as all true propositions must be, are not innate. Nothing more obvious! But surely those whom he opposes must, or ought to have meant, (though I cannot say I have read their arguments, nor do I mean to answer for anyone but myself) not that the propositions themselves were innate, but that the conscious internal sentiments on which such moral propositions are founded were innate.
He looked on me, interrogatively.
I said it might be so, and that I saw a great difference in those things.
Or perhaps, continued he, the mistake may have arisen from following too closely the mode, in which it is necessary to proceed, in order to acquire a knowledge of certain sciences, as in geometry: that is, by laying down some clear and self-evident axioms or rational propositions. But even here it should be remembered that, in the natures of things, there were principles which had existence anterior to the formation of these axioms or propositions, and on which they are founded, and on which they depend for their existence: as, extension and solidity.
I gave an assenting inclination of the head.
I cannot, therefore, conceive, added he, that what we ought to understand by innate moral principles, can by any means, when fairly explained, be imagined to bear any similitude to such propositions as Mr. Locke advances as bidding fairest to be innate, nor to any other propositions. That is, I cannot conceive that our innate moral principles, our natural sentiments, or internal conscious feelings, (name them how you please) which we derive, and which result, from our very nature as creatures morally relative, are at all like unto any propositions whatever.
Who can discover any similitude to any conscious sentiment of the soul in these strangely irrelative propositions:
“Whatever is, is.”
“It is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be?”
The innate principles of the soul, continued he, cannot, any more than those of the body, be propositions. They must be in us antecedently to all our reasonings about them, or they could never be in us at all: for we cannot, by reasoning, create any thing, the principles of which did not exist antecedently. We can, indeed, describe our innate sentiments and perceptions to each other; we can reason, and we can make propositions about them; but our reasonings neither are, nor can create in us, moral principles. They exist prior to, and independently of, all reasoning, and all propositions about them.
When we are told that benevolence is pleasing; that malevolence is painful; we are not convinced of these truths by reasoning, nor by forming them into propositions: but by an appeal to the innate internal affections of our souls: and if on such an appeal, we could not feel within the sentiment of benevolence, and the peculiar pleasure attending it; and that of malevolence and its concomitant pain, not all the reasoning in the world could ever make us sensible of them, or enable us to understand their nature.
I do not see that it could, said I.
Every being in the universe, continued he, must receive its principles from the Divine Creator of all things. The reason of man can create no principles in the natures of things. It will, by proper application, enable him to know many things concerning them which, without reasoning, he never could have known; and to explain his knowledge, so acquired, to other men; but the principles of all created beings are engendered with, and accompany, the existence which they receive from their Creator. And in a point so truly essential as that of morality is to the nature of such a creature as man; God has not left him without innate and ever-inherent principles. He has not left to the imbecility of human reason to create what he knew it never could create, and what we know it never can create.
Even in the abstracted sciences of arithmetic and geometry, reason can create no principles in the natures of the things treated of. It can lay down axioms and draw up propositions concerning numbers, extension, and solidity; but numbers, extension, and solidity existed prior to any reasoning about them.
And here I must observe that the assent or dissent that we give to propositions in these sciences, which are but little interesting to our nature, is drawn from a source widely different from that which we give to moral propositions. Thus, when we are told that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, and see the demonstration; we say simply, true. That they are equal to three right angles; false. These things being irrelative to morals, they move no conscious sentiment, and do therefore only receive our bare assent or dissent as a mere object of sense; in the same manner as when we say a thing is, or is not, black or white, or round or square; we use our eyes, and are satisfied.
But the truth or falsehood of moral propositions must be judged of by another measure; through a more interesting medium: we must apply to our internal sense; our divine monitor and guide within; through which the just and unjust, the right and wrong, the moral beauty and deformity of human minds, and of human actions, can only be perceived. And this internal sense must most undoubtedly be innate, as we have already shown; it could not otherwise have existence in us; we not being able, by reasoning, or by any other means, to give ourselves any new sense, or to create, in our nature, any principle at all. I therefore think Mr. Locke, in speaking of innate moral principles, ought, at least, to have made a difference between propositions relative to morals, and those which have no such relation.
It seems so, said I; and seeing him ready to say more, I begged he would proceed.
He continued thus:
If we, in this matter, pay any regard to the analogy of nature, can we rationally allow innate principles, or inherent natural laws, to all the beings we have any knowledge of, and deny them to man alone? Were we to consider his soul and body as distinct natures, and not as too intimately united, perhaps, to be easily separated, could we allow innate principles to the body and none to the soul but what it must create for itself?
It must be absurd.
It must be absurd to suppose that man, who is utterly incapable of thoroughly understanding the true natures of those principles, by which every other being exists and is actuated, should be left to contrive and create principles for the conduct of the most refined part of the creation that we are acquainted with; for the human soul. Assuredly, as all created beings are endued with certain natural principles, necessarily innate, and ever-inherent in them; and which make their several different natures to be what they are; so man, or the soul of man, cannot, as a created being, exist without innate and ever-inherent principles.
Seeing he expected a reply:
I must confess, said I, that I do not find myself very able to dispute the truth of your doctrine with you. You will, therefore, excuse me if I call in Mr. Locke to my aid.
As you please, said he, smiling.
Mr. Locke then, you know, returned I, has used several ways to prove that we have no innate principles: and though I clearly see that your arguments do make generally against them all; yet I shall be better satisfied if you will permit me to particularize some of them, if it be only to hear, from you, a refutation of them.
You know, continued I, Mr. Locke advances that principles cannot be innate unless their ideas be also innate. “For, says he, if the ideas be not innate, there was a time when the mind was without those principles; and then they will not be innate, but be derived from some other original. For where the ideas themselves are not, there can be no knowledge, no assent, no mental or verbal propositions about them.”[iv]
Now is there nothing in what he advances in this place that will affect your doctrine of innate principles?
I think not, answered he.
For granting that we have no innate ideas, it is by no means from thence follow, as he says, then we have no innate principles. Ideas, simply considered, are very different things from innate moral principles, or from any other principles, which constitute the nature of things. If I have not already shown, I will, by and by, endeavor more clearly to show that the propositions we compose according to our idea of things are nothing but propositions; they are not really the principles of the things treated of: the principles of the things treated of are naturally inherent and exist perpetually in them whether our ideas or propositions concerning them be true or false.
But in the part quoted there is a fallacy. He says, “if the ideas be not unique, there was a time when the mind was without those principles.” The conclusion, you see, is vague and delusive. The only just conclusion he could have drawn was, that if the ideas be not innate, there was a time when the mind was without those ideas, out of which the propositions are formed, which I call principles. I doubt not that you perceive they are very improperly so called in the present question. For Mr. Locke thus confounds the principles of our nature, and the ideas contained in the propositions he names, together, as if they were the same things: but they cannot be so, because the one receives existence from the prior existence of the other. That is, our moral ideas receive their existence from the prior existence of our innate moral sentiments or principles: as our ideas of light and figure are derived from the prior existence of sight.
In this question the matter, as too frequently happens, has been puzzled and obscured by the misuse of words. Axioms, and allowed propositions, are called principles. But they are only principles formed by the human mind, in aid of its own weakness; which, in reasoning, can proceed but a little way without proved or granted propositions to rest on. They might, perhaps, with much more propriety, be called helps, assistances, or supports to the imbecility of the human mind, than principles of things. The principles which naturally inhere in every species of created beings are of a nature entirely different.
It seems, then, said I, that you agree with Mr. Locke that neither ideas or propositions can be innate: but you differ from him by denying any propositions what so ever to be properly the principles of any species of beings; and by affirming that both speculative and practical propositions are mere creatures of human invention; which whether they be true or false, that is, founded in the nature of things or not, the true natures and principles of things remain unalterably the same.
That is my meaning, replied he, and that, therefore, most of the arguments advanced by Mr. Locke against innate principles are nothing, or but very little, to the purpose; because they only tend to combat things as innate principles which are nothing like innate principles; and, if it be not too bold a thing to say of so penetrating a genius, he seems only to have been fighting with a phantom of his own creating.
Indeed, highly as I think of his genius and integrity, I should have much doubted of his sincerity in this doctrine if we had not frequently seen men of the first rate abilities suffer themselves to be carried into great absurdities by their fondness for a favorite system, or, by too hasty a desire of forming a perfect one.
It is certain, however, that nothing can be more excellent than his work as far as it regards our manner of acquiring ideas by sensation and reflection. But what should move him to advance that we have no other way of acquiring ideas; why he should exclude our moral sense and deny even its existence with the pains of so much acute false reasoning, I shall not, at present, endeavor to explain. But having so determined, he found it necessary to remove all notions of innate moral principles (and with them, all other innate principles) out of the way, in the beginning of his book: for had they been granted, another source of ideas must have been admitted besides those of sensation and reflection as explained by Mr. Locke. And I shall not hesitate to affirm that a clear and indisputable explication of this mode of acquiring ideas would have cost him much more pains in trouble than all the rest of his most ingenious work. For human actions and opinions, in the ordinary course of things, pass away in so rapid a succession as to leave no lasting traces behind them; nothing fixed to which we may refer for a renewal or a correction of our moral ideas concerning them, if our memory prove deficient. And, unless they be recorded with extraordinary accuracy, they can seldom be contemplated a second time in precisely the same light in which they were viewed at the first.
But all those ideas which arise in our minds by the impressions which external things make upon our senses being derived from objects of fixed and lasting natures, when our memory fails us, when we doubt the clearness or precision of our ideas, we can, generally, refer with ease to the objects themselves, and can renew, or rectify, our ideas at pleasure. This renders geometry so certain and indisputable as science: for the least variation or incorrectness in our ideas may be discovered and corrected by recurring to the figures themselves, which, through the medium of sight, convey invariably the same ideas to the mind. Nor is there any impediment, anything naturally interesting to our affections, in the nature of the things themselves, that should make us see them falsely or apply them irrationally.
But it is not so in moral science; it more closely concerns and is more deeply interesting to us in every point of view: it therefore throws more impediments in our way to a right understanding and clear comprehension of its truths. Our early-imbibed prejudices, misplaced affections, ill-governed passions, and jarring interests, distort and falsify our ideas in moral subjects extremely, nor can a just and natural representation of our moral sentiments or feelings take place in our minds until those delusive and turbulent enemies to moral truth be subdued or properly corrected. And also to men whose affections and passions are duly tempered, and minds naturally adjusted, moral truths may be as clear as mathematical ones, yet, from the unhappy circumstances above-mentioned, they are generally much more clouded and obscured; and are, therefore, perpetually subjected to tedious and unpleasant disputations: a very untoward and disgusting circumstance without a doubt.[v]
But which you think, replied I, not enough so to have caused Mr. Locke to deny the existence of innate moral principles; things so essentially interesting to the calls of virtue: and which, you consider as a source of ideas, not comprehended in what he understands by sensation and reflection.
And are you not of the same mind, interrogated he, in a lively tone?
At present I am, answered I, but yet I must bid with Mr. Locke to be more clearly informed concerning the nature of those innate principles;[vi] for, says he, “nobody has yet ventured to give a catalogue of them.”
By the demand of a catalog of them, said my friend, he seems only to expect a string of moral maxims or propositions: but these, we have agreed, with him, are not innate principles: we have agreed that they are not properly principles of things at all. But, before we attempt to explain farther what we mean by innate moral principles, it may not be improper to endeavor to define what we would be understood to signify by the word principle, so far, at least, as it regards our present inquiry: and so, perhaps, when we come to speak of any innate principle, after describing it as well as we can, we may be allowed to say what Mr. Locke says of the faculty of perception, which I presume is innate,[vii] viz. “who ever reflects on what passes in his own mind cannot miss it; and if he does not reflect, all the words in the world cannot make him have any notion of it.”[viii] So, our moral principles be innate, and of a simple nature, when we would describe the sensations or sentiments they produce in us; if by turning men’s minds inward upon their own feelings we cannot make them perceive what they are, words in any other view will be vain and useless. Yet in essentials all men must be sensible of them, and capable of perceiving them, clearly enough, in plain, practical cases, for all the good purposes of human life: except, indeed, such persons as Mr. Locke very strangely, not to say preposterously, selects as the most likely to preserve a pure and perfect sense of them: viz. idiots, infants, and madmen.
He was going to proceed in the definition of his meaning by the word principle when finding we were just at home, he declined it to another opportunity; to which I assented, on a promise that it should be early next morning. And thus ended our first dialogue.
On retiring to my chamber, reflecting on the discourse of my friend; I found my mind impressed with a pleasing satisfaction and composure, and, somewhat disburthened of that uncertainty and confusion which the arguments against innate principles produce in moral subjects. It is, certainly, highly inimical to the cause of virtue to introduce doubts concerning the existence of moral principles. If the mind do not perceive such principles to be fixed and general in human nature, and not ever fluctuating and varying according to times, circumstances, customs, fashions, and opinions, it cannot rationally depend upon any principles at all. It must remain ever perplexed and wavering, and utterly devoid of that stability and that mental determination which are the principal supports of all virtuous achievements. That manly firmness and constancy which is so necessary in all great and worthy designs, and which is the effect of a generous affection for truth and justice, requires steady and invariable principles to support it in us.
It should seem, therefore, much more consonant to the character of genuine philosophy to endeavor to strengthen and confirm the mind in just principles, than to puzzle and confound it with difficulties and vain objections. For though the human understanding may be, nay must be, incapable of solving many difficulties in the nature of things: yet to stick to those difficulties tenaciously and to apply them continually to prove the uncertainty of our knowledge and to leave us perplexed and confounded is doubtless but a very untoward, left-handed, kind of philosophy. In her genuine course, she leads us gently on as far as our understandings will carry us, and we can see our way clearly: when difficulties occur (and they must frequently occur in works formed by infinite wisdom when examined by such minds as ours) she shows us their nature and extent and explains them (if at all explicable) as well and as far as she can, continually keeping in view the nature of man and his true interest and proper business upon the earth.
In the morning I rose with the sun, and traversed the garden waiting with impatience the rising of my friend. It was not long (though I thought it so) before he came down and joined me, with a smile, in one of the walks. After taking a turn or two and discoursing lightly on the beauties of the objects around us, I reminded him of his promise, and of the subject with which he concluded his discourse the preceding evening.
Your demand is just, said he; and after musing a short time, he began thus:
In all subjects of reasoning, we can never be too careful in fixing the meaning of our words, especially of those words on a clear understanding of which the knowledge of the matter in question principally depends. We will therefore endeavor to explain our ideas of the word principles, as employed in our present inquiry, with as much precision as we can.
I humbly conceive, then, continued he, that no thing or being in the universe could possibly exist or be what it is without certain necessarily-inherent qualities, properties, energies, or laws; which together form and constitute its nature and cause it to be specifically what it is. These necessarily-inherent qualities, properties, energies, or laws whatever names they may be called by, are what I would now be understood to signify by the word principles, as being prime, or first, in the constituting of the natures of all things. Thus all the animal creation, all the vegetables, have their general, and their specific, principles. Earth, water, air, fire, have their principles. The Earth as a whole in itself, or, as a part in our planetary system, has its principles. Our planetary system as a whole, or, as relative to other systems, or to the universe, has its principles. The universe as a whole must also have its principles, by which all its parts are made relative and are chained and united together; although in a manner totally incomprehensible by any but its all-wise and all-powerful Creator. But of him, the great first cause! The principle of all principles! Of Him, from whom the whole universe and all that it contains derive their principles, what shall we say, or how speak, with propriety? So weak, so incompetent, or are we that we are lost in the contemplation of his nature, and hardly know how to discourse of him with tolerable sense or without absurdity and danger of impiety and profanation.
I bowed assentingly.
However, we may truly say, continued he, that with regard to the relation we stand in to God and to his concatenated creation we cannot possibly serve him better or render him juster worship than by paying the strictest attention to those innate principles with which he has endued our nature, and by which he has clearly pointed out (if we suffer not our attention to be diverted by false lights) our road to what is most eligible and best both in our moral and physical conduct in this life.
After a short pause, seeing me deeply engaged in reflection:
I speak of these things, said he, only to explain my meaning by the word principles in its most extensive sense: but with all due consciousness of human imbecility, when we presume to discourse concerning things of infinite extent. But I take such to be the notions we must naturally and do most usually entertain of the One general or universal principle whenever we think attentively or rationally about Him. Yet still we must observe that we are not capable of attaining any certain knowledge of the true nature of such a principle: we can only perceive it as a cause by the effects, but we know not how it causes.
He looked on me.
I do not object, said I.
Then we will descend a little, continued he, for our minds are better adapted to more confined views, and to the consideration of parts, than of the whole of the creation.
In nature, things are distinguished from each other and are arranged into kinds and species, and we do no more than follow her in so considering them. The general laws by which every kind exists and is moved and actuated are the general principles of that kind. The particular laws by which every species exists differently, and is moved and actuated differently from its kind, are its particular, or specific, principles. Thus every kind and species of beings have principles naturally inherent in them.
True, said I, but do we know what those principles are, or how they act in them, so as to produce the varieties which we see in their natures?
Perhaps not, replied he, for of the principles of beings without us, we can only judge by the perceptible effects which they exhibit: nor can their true internal nature and manner of acting be ever understood by us any farther than by conjecture from the effects they produce. Yet we are certain of the necessary existence of such principles and their natures as cause the production of such differences and distinctions as mark the various kinds and species. A further knowledge, it seems, was not designed for man: nor indeed does it appear to me that it would be either useful or convenient in our present state and short duration here: it would only draw us more from our true and proper business; from the study of ourselves and of the nature of our kind: from which we already find but too many frivolous occasions to wander. It has long been an applauded fashion to make collections and to roam abroad in search of rarities and monsters for others to gaze at, indulging a sort of idle industry in vain curiosity concerning things but little relative, or perhaps quite foreign, to our nature: and such trifling is dignified with the honorable names of learning and knowledge. So much engaged without doors, however, it cannot be but our affairs at home must suffer, and our most interesting concerns lie neglected. For though I do by no means agree with those who think the most difficult of all knowledge is the knowledge of ourselves, yet I am very certain that men whose minds are continually employed in extraneous subjects of science, or in those amusing external arts which are irrelative to moral life, are but very rarely even tolerable proficients in the home-science. Indeed, it is not to be expected that a man should be skillful in an art which he has never allowed himself time to think of or leisure to attend to.
I am very sensible of the fashionable folly, said I, and know very well at how cheap a rate literary distinctions are purchased; and I must agree with you that a mind much addicted to extraneous researches is not likely to be very well-informed at home: but I should be glad to know why you think the attainment of a knowledge of ourselves is less difficult than commonly imagined?
I do not think, replied he, that any kind of knowledge can be acquired without attention and study: but the knowledge we may attain of our own nature and principles is more clear and more certain, comes to us easier and with better evidence, than we can possibly acquire concerning the nature and principles of any other creatures. What man can doubt that it is more easy for him to know himself than it is for him to know any other man, or than it is for any other man to know him? If a man be incapable of knowing himself, a subject with which he is so intimately, so sensibly united; whose principles, sentiments, perceptions, thoughts, and designs he can always inspect and know without disguise whenever he pleases to view them impartially, I say if he be incapable of knowing himself with the aid of so much previous, clear, intelligence, how much more incapable must he be of knowing any other man whose thoughts and designs he cannot be so sure of, or any other creature whose nature and true principles can never with certainty be known to him? In short, the truth is this, that unless a man be a tolerable adept in the knowledge of himself, and can perceive all the various turnings and windings of the human affections and passions and their effects in his own heart, he can have no rule or measure by which he may form and regulate his judgment concerning the actions and intentions of others.
I think you are right, said I.
It is probably, therefore, a truer maxim, continued he, to say that it is easier for a man to know himself than to know any other man or any other creature; and that a man’s knowledge of other men and of other creatures will very much increase as he advances in the knowledge of himself and of his own nature. For his most rational conjectures concerning the natures of other animals are principally founded on what he is conscious of in himself as an animal.
He saw I did not incline to object.
Let us then digress no farther, said he, but return to our subject:
There is another kind of principles which is entirely of human creation, and which can only with propriety be called principles as they are the beginnings of human reasoning. These usually pass under well-known denominations of data, axioms, maxims, rules, etc. They are invented and formed by the human mind in aid of its own imbecility. They are foundations which it finds itself obliged to lay before it can proceed in the reasoning art to the building of any considerable structure. They may be solid or sandy, true or false. In proportion to their truth or falsehood will be the stability or instability of the structure we raise upon them. In short, they are merely inventions of the human mind to facilitate its own progress in the search of less evident and more important truths, or to enable us to prove to others (granting them to be true) that some other propositions must be true which had been denied, or of which there seemed to be some doubt. But it is important to the matter we at present have in view to remember that this form of principles can only be called principles relative to the human mind in the exercise of its reasoning faculty, and that the true and genuine principles of things which are formed and constituted in their natures neither are, nor are at all like unto, those data, axioms, rules, or maxims of human invention; but exist quite independently of and prior to any such things.
Well, said I, but what do you infer from all this?
Why, do you not see, answered he, that all the principles which Mr. Locke advances and refutes as innate (if any, says he, can be so) are of this latter kind?
I do, returned I, But what then?
Why, then said he, Mr. Locke, with the greatest respect it be spoken, has very much misspent his time and pains, having only proved that certain data or maxims are not innate principles of human nature, which I hope you now perceive (though true) was nothing to the purpose; the innate principles of our nature and such data and maxims being quite different things.
They seem so, indeed, replied I, and I perceive by your explication that data or axioms are of human invention, but that the principles which constitute the natures of things are of divine origin. But permit me to trouble you a little farther. If certain moral maxims be found to be indisputably just and agreeable to the true interests and happiness of mankind (though of human invention merely) may that not serve us in the regulation of our conduct as effectually as any innate principles whatever? Or, in other words, is not our reason given us to supply, in some degree, the place of innate moral principles?
This, returned he, is what Mr. Locke would have us to understand, but most certainly it cannot be so, for as we have shown before, we are not able by reasoning to create principles in things. The principles of all things exist in them before we begin to reason about them, or they never could be made to exist at all by any human power.
Our reason must always have some foundation to build upon; that foundation must exist before we begin to reason, or we could not reason at all. We can neither perceive or understand anything as a subject of reasoning whose principles do not exist prior to our reasoning. Thus moral maxims, when true, must be founded on some principles in the human nature which are originally inherent in man, and our reasoning in the formation of such maxims must be regulated by those originally-inherent principles. Had we not such principles innate or born with us, our reason could have no ground to go upon concerning morals, for reasoning could never make a man, devoid of innate moral principles, perceive the justice or truth of any moral maxim. Indeed, without such principles he could never know anything at all of moral maxims, for when any moral maxim is proposed to us we can neither understand it or examine into its truth or falsehood without referring to our internal touchstone, our innate moral sentiments; they alone enable us to understand it, and by them only can we judge of its truth or falsehood, for its truth or falsehood to us depends entirely upon its agreement or disagreement with them.
My feelings, said I, will not permit me to contradict you. But Mr. Locke, you know, rather triumphantly demands a catalogue of these principles, which he says no one “has ventured yet to give.”
I understand you, replied he: you desire to know what I have to say on that subject?
I do, returned I.
You know, then, continued he, that when Mr. Locke demands a catalogue of innate principles, he means a catalogue of propositions such as he had before proved to be not innate, and such as you and I have agreed cannot properly be called principles of our nature at all. These, therefore, can be but little to our present purpose. But nevertheless, we have innate moral principles which do not consist of propositions or maxims, but of internal sentiments or conscious feelings prior to all moral maxims, and without which (as you have seen) morals could have no foundation in nature, nor could be understood.
All right and wrong, just and unjust, which concern the nature and happiness of man is perceived by him through what is innate, and formed in him in the very constitution of his nature, or he could never perceive or understand them at all.
If anyone require a catalogue, or rather an exact description of these innate internal sentiments, I can only tell him what I feel within myself, and describe to him how the actions of men and how the relations of their actions, when I hear or read them, affect my nature and move my conscious feelings. Nor can he have any other rule of judging the truth or falsehood of my sentiments but by reference to his own conscience, by which only it is possible for him to form any rational judgment.
Mr. Locke[ix] himself does not think a better explanation can be given of any simple perception, or idea, than that we do perceive it, which is as much as to say, thus I am impressed by the object; thus it affects me; how are you impressed? How does it affect you? This doctrine, you see, supposes that all men being of the same kind have the same natural principles in them (with the degrees only or more or less perfect) and that, therefore, their perceptions must be the same, or very nearly the same; and indeed, were they not so, they could never understand each others’ meaning.
We do not, therefore, contend about innate moral principles, as if they were innate propositions or innate ideas, but as principles naturally inherent in mankind, which being excited to action, raise in our minds ideas and concerning which we can make propositions. We can describe them to each other, and we can compare our feelings and perceptions of them together, as we can those of sight or any other sense. But take away the innate principles, the sight, and the moral sense, and everyone perceives that neither reasoning, argumentation, explanation, or description, in short, that no human contrivance can possibly make the blind man understand any thing concerning the objects of sight, or the unconscious man any thing concerning moral truths. If our conscience, or moral sense, were not born with us, we most certainly never could be made to feel or understand any thing concerning morals, nor could we ever reason at all about them; we should be entirely ignorant of any such thing.
You must now, no doubt, perceive, continued he, how absurd it would be to demand a catalogue of our innate moral principles when the true nature of them is rightly understood. It would be to demand a catalogue of all the conscious sentiments excited in us in all the various actions and circumstances which occur to us in human life; in which right or wrong, just or unjust, moral beauty or deformity, are concerned. It were as reasonable to demand a catalogue of all the various sensations excited in us by the operations of outward things on our other senses. The only rational attempt to describe or give a catalogue of our innate moral principles would be to copy the purer sentiments of the best moralists, who have, with the soundest heads, justly and naturally depicted the conscious sentiments of the worthiest hearts; which would be no more than if, being curious in vision and the nature of sight, we were to consult the ablest masters in optics and were to give a catalogue of their experiments and opinions in that science.
But rather than you should have that trouble, said I, we will talk no more of a catalogue. He smiled; and after a short silence, he proceeded to show that conscience, or innate moral principles, must be the same in all men.
You know, said he, that Mr. Locke himself, presuming that creatures of the same species are endued with powers, faculties, or inborn principles (though he will not say innate) which are the same in every individual of the species, not defective, seems not to doubt that the simple ideas conveyed to the mind by the senses (though inexplicable by words) are the same in all men; or so far the same as to enable them very well to understand each others’ meaning. And this, no doubt, is true with the exception of more or less perfect faculties, and consequently of more clear or more obscure, more extensive or more confined ideas; for, were it not true, individuals could no more understand each other than if they were creatures of quite different species. If their natural faculties had not a very strong similarity, if the manner of their operation were not very much the same, how could they possibly nearly penetrate each others thoughts or conceive ideas enough similar to enable them to hold any communication?
But, this being allowed, it must equally hold in our innate moral principles, which though as to strength or weakness, clearness or obscurity, they be somewhat diversified in different men; yet they must be so much of the same nature, as to differ only in degree, not in kind; otherwise we could hold no intelligible conversation about morals.
Certainly not, said I.
How very inconsistent, then continued he, is the doctrine advanced by Mr. Locke when he says that conscience “is nothing else but our own opinion, or judgment,[x] of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own actions. And if conscience be a proof of innate principles, contraries may be innate principles, since some men with the same bent of conscience prosecute what others avoid.”
If this were true, if there were nothing internally the same, nothing common and inborn in the human species concerning moral rectitude or pravity, but if every individual in that point were distinct and a species himself, and could form moral sentiments which might or might not according to accidents or his own fancy have relation to or correspondence with those of other men, all intelligible communication on that subject must cease, and all the doctrines of morality among creatures thus distinct and irrelative must not only be impertinent and incomprehensible to each other, but must remain utterly devoid of that general nature, or those specific qualities, which only could render such doctrines useful to us as creatures of the same kind, nature, and constitution.
All those faculties, qualities, or properties, continued he, which are comprised in the formation and constitution of an individual of any species of creatures, must be comprehended in every individual of the same species, not defective, otherwise he cannot be deemed to be of the same species, but another. And if any individual be born defective, or without some faculty or property common to his species (as we have shown of the blind man) of things acquirable by or relative to that faculty, he can receive no knowledge from, nor have any intelligible communication with, those who are not so defective.
Unless those faculties and qualities which constitute a species were the same in every individual of that species, that consent of nature, or sympathetic charm which arises from the sameness of our feelings, and which draws together and unites the individuals of every species could have no existence. They could by no other means than by the identity of the principles of their nature be thus inclined towards each other; nor could they by any other means conceive any thing of each other’s nature, any more than if each individual were a distinct species.
If all men, then, be of the same species, all the faculties, qualities, or properties which go to the constituting or making of a man must be the same in all men. That they are the same is clear because men do understand each other when they converse together concerning them; they differ (as we have said) only in degree. Now, conscience must be of this number; it is a quality or property common to human nature, varying only in the degrees of stronger or weaker, clearer or more obscure. Men understand each other when they speak of conscience, which, were it not the same in all, they could not do. It is, therefore, the same in all men, or it is nothing that can be useful to them.
If conscience were, as Mr. Locke pretends, only the opinion or judgment of every individual concerning the moral rectitude or pravity of his own actions, and if those opinions and judgments be various and even contrary, as he allows and thinks he proves, it could be no natural, general, principle of the species; but men, in point of conscience, would be naturally quite irrelative to each other: and every individual would be a distinct species, and could no more judge of the conscience of another man then he could judge the conscience of any being whose nature was totally unlike his own.
But our opinions or judgments cannot make or constitute any principle in our nature. If I have an opinion, or if I judge that any thing will be good for, or pleasing to, my nature, which on experiment proves evil and displeasing, my opinion or judgment cannot make it otherwise. Our opinions may be lightly taken up, ill-grounded, and false; but the principles of our nature are the work of infinite wisdom, deep-rooted, and invariably true. And though at the expense of our own misery and vexation we may thwart and oppose them, yet they can never be eradicated by any power of ours, nor can their nature be changed by our erroneous opinions and judgments.
Mr. Locke, I remember, continued he, seems to think the argument conclusive against innate moral principles when he shows us that all our ideas included in the propositions which he calls moral principals are acquired. But this is not going to the bottom of the matter in question. Mr. Locke always carefully avoids the use of the word innate whenever he names any of the principles or faculties by which we acquire our ideas of things. Yet, I think, he somewhere has called them in-born in the Essay. And in his Treatise of Civil Government he finds it hard to avoid innate principles, and he talks of the principles of human nature more than once.
He likens the mind to a piece of white paper, ready to receive any characters or impressions. He informs us that through the medium of the senses the mind is impressed and receives such ideas as they convey; we therefore have no innate ideas. True. But can he justly say we have, therefore, no innate principles? Certainly not. For ideas and innate principles are not the same thing. Ideas are only the produce, and arise in consequence, of innate principles. – Are not our senses innate through which we perceive those ideas? Is not the mind itself innate which perceives them? Most undoubtedly. And to object that they are dormant and useless until they be excited to action is frivolous, for so are our hands, our feet, and all our members and faculties, yet who can deny them to be innate, or born with us?
Through the senses, which are undoubtedly innate, we receive ideas of external things: through the moral sense, no less certainly innate, we receive ideas concerning moral things. Any one born without sight cannot have the least idea of the objects of sight. Any one born without innate moral principles, or a moral sense, cannot have any idea of moral subjects. Reasoning would be as vain and useless in one case as in the other. Reasoning cannot give sight to the blind; reasoning cannot give a moral sense to those born without it – it must be innate, or it cannot be at all.
While I was expressing my satisfaction with my friend’s arguments, and going to extend my inquiries farther, some company arrived who joined us, and continued with us till after dinner.
Towards the evening, our company took their leave of us, and my friend and I according to our custom walked in the adjacent fields, where on the first opportunity I renewed the conversation in which we were interrupted in the morning.
You will excuse me, said I, though perhaps by this time I ought to be fully satisfied of the existence of innate moral principles, if I still continue to trouble you with a few more of Mr. Locke’s objections, which are thought to carry some weight with them.
He smiled assent.
You know what stress Mr. Locke[xi] lays upon the want of universal consent to those propositions which he gives us for innate moral principles, if any be so.
I do, replied he. But as I think we agreed that propositions were not innate principles, nor any way similar to them, it should seem what he hath said upon that head cannot be much to our present purpose. However, continued he, it may not be improper to say somewhat on that subject, if it only be to endeavor to show what sort of universality it is reasonable to expect in human nature, and in this, I think, Mr. Locke will materially help us out.
But to facilitate our inquiry, it will be proper to explain more strictly the sense of some words which we may already have used and may again frequently use in the course of it. I mean the words conscience, moral sense, and innate moral principles, which I think have been and may be generally used promiscuously, as significant of the same things.
By these words, then, I mean an innate sense, implanted in our nature, as moral agents, by the great Creator of all things: by which we are made sensible of the right and wrong, of the just and unjust, of the moral beauty and deformity of human actions and human minds, and to which we must refer as to the only true criterion in all our reasonings that concern the just rights of mankind, the natural and moral obligations we are under to others, and to ourselves, and in general, the moral happiness or misery of the human species.
Now I know of no objections against the universal existence of this moral sense in mankind which do not lie equally against the universal existence of all our other senses. Total want and privation are objections as far as they extend, but imperfection or defectiveness is no objection against the universality of the existence of our senses. Sight and hearing are possessed by men from the greatest human perfection down to the most imperfect and defective. Blindness and deafness are the only exceptions against the universality of sight and hearing. Conscience also is naturally inherent in all mankind, but as in the senses of sight and hearing, with various degrees of sensibility and clearness it may descend from the greatest perfection down to the most defective dullness. But like the sense of feeling, it seems to be so closely inherent in us that it is hard to conceive how a living man can be totally deprived of it. Idiotism and madness may disable him for perceiving its effects, and in infancy he may be incapable for good reasons which will be shown hereafter, and these are the only exceptions against its universality in human nature; but they are not exceptions against the universality of its existence, they are only exceptions against the universal perception of it.
I believe you are right, said I; but do you not think it an objection to this moral sense that men are not equally quick and fine in their feelings of its operations and effects?
It can certainly be no objection to its existence, replied he, any more than to the existence of the other senses.
But do you then suppose, interrogated I, that the perspicacity or dullness of the conscience, or moral sense, bears any proportion to the strength or weakness of our mental faculties?
I really cannot say, answered he, what proportion they may bear to each other; but I know that our perception of the effects of conscience, as well as the effects of the other senses, will be clear or otherwise according to the strengths or weakness of our understandings. This is a matter of daily and continual experience. And indeed, it is one very rational way of accounting for the seemingly great diversity of men’s thoughts and opinions, which certainly does not arise from any difference in their natural principles (only in the degrees of more or less perfect) or from any natural difference in their way of perceiving things, but from the clearness or obscurity, strength or weakness, of their mental abilities.
But does not this argument, demanded I, make against the efficacy of the conscience as a moral guide?
No more, replied he, than it does against the efficacy of the other senses for their several uses.
For my part, continued he, I do not pretend to fathom the depths of infinite wisdom. I do not, therefore, ask why every principle of our nature is not precisely and universally the same as to measure and degree in the whole species. I perceive, as to measure and degree, that every principle differs in almost every individual, and I also perceive that there is an universality in the kind and nature of every principle given by the Deity to the whole human species, and indeed to every other species of creatures, notwithstanding those differences in degree.
That every single animal of the same species differs from others does not so far shock me as to make me conclude that the principles of their nature are not the same in kind. Much less does it affect me in the human species when I consider man as a rational creature in a higher degree, as a free agent in point of morals, indued with innate conscious principles, and as the elector and chooser of his own moral happiness or misery. For surely whoever will consider these distinctions, what they are in us, and how we are affected by them, cannot be much surprised to find more diversity in men than in any other kind of creatures whose natures are restrained to instincts, and who are incapable of any degree of moral free agency.
To be calling out, therefore, for universality of consent on these occasions seems to me to be only taking an unfair advantage of the almost inexplicable diversity to be found in human minds and in human actions, with which any acute man, if he please, may puzzle others and himself. But amidst all this diversity, when we candidly survey the conduct of our species, we can easily perceive them to be actuated, generally and universally, by the same natural principles. And indeed, as we have seen, if it were not so, they could not sympathize; there could be no consent of natures in them, nor could they every understand each others’ meaning at all.
But, as I have said, Mr. Locke himself will materially help us out in this argument. Then taking the Essay on Human Understanding out of his pocket, he turned to page 139, and read as follows:
“The knowing precisely what our words stand for, would, I imagine,[xii] in this, as well as a great many other cases, end the dispute. For I am apt to think that men, when they come to examine them, find their simpler ideas all generally to agree, though in discourse with one another they perhaps confound one another with different names. I imagine that men who abstract their thoughts, and do well examine the ideas of their own minds, cannot much differ in thinking, however they may perplex themselves with words, according to the way of speaking of the several schools or sects they have been bred up in: though amongst unthinking men, who examine not scrupulously and carefully their own ideas, and strip them not from the marks men use for them, but confound them with words, there must be endless dispute, wrangling and jargon, especially if they be learned bookish men devoted to some sect, and accustomed to the language of it, and have learned to talk after others. But if it should happen that any two thinking men should really have different ideas, I do not see how they could discourse or argue one with another.”
Here it seems, said he, Mr. Locke does not see how men could discourse or argue together unless their simple ideas were the same. Nor do I. But their simple ideas cannot be the same unless their senses through which they are perceived are the same. If the senses be the same, the universality of the senses can have no exceptions but those we have already named. And if we have proved the existence of a moral sense necessary (as I think we have, from the impossibility of men’s discoursing intelligibly about morals without it) there can be no objections to its universality but those we have mentioned.
You are doubtless in the right, said I; yet you know Mr. Locke has been pleased to advance that if we had any innate moral principles, infants, idiots, and madmen would be more clearly sensible of them than other people, because less corrupted by habits and by the prejudices and customs of this world.
He has so, replied he, but here it can be of no force, because Mr. Locke’s moral principles, as I must again repeat, were only moral propositions. According to our explication and ideas of innate moral principles, nothing can be more absurd. Would it not be as reasonable to say that infants, by their helpless ignorance and inexperience, that idiots, by their total want of understanding and capacity, and that madmen, by the distraction and disorder of their minds, are in a better condition on these accounts to distinguish nicely, and to judge accurately, of their sensations and moral sentiments? In truth, minds thus situated are too weak, or too confused and distracted, to be able to judge, or even to be sensible, of their own helpless and miserable condition.
But as Mr. Locke denies that we have any innate moral principles at all, he supposes and assumes what he can neither suppose nor assume of any other principle of our nature: he supposes that if we have any innate principles of morality they must not only be born with us, ready molded and formed into such evident and indisputable propositions as no man can deny. This is strange.
Do we say that the sense of hearing is not innate because we are not born perfectly accomplished in music? Do we infer that our sight is not innate because we are not born opticians? Certainly not. Why, then, should we presume that our conscience is not innate because we are not born moral philosophers? If to the sight, to the hearing, and to the other senses, time and experience be allowed necessary, and if, to adjust properly the ideas and thoughts they have conveyed to us, understanding, attention, and judgment be wanting, why may we not, as reasonably, allow the same time and experience, the same understanding, attention, and judgment, to be requisite to the nature and proper conduct of our innate moral sense?
It seems reasonable, answered I.
In the imbecility of infancy, and the giddiness of childhood, continued he, we are but poorly qualified for making nice observations on our sensations and ideas of any sort; but so much less on those of the moral kind, because the nature of our condition is, then, such as scarcely, if at all, places us in the circumstances of moral agents. In infancy, it is out of the question, and in childhood there are but few calls for the exercise of conscience, which is wisely ordered, for then we have but little judgment to observe its effects. God has naturally placed us at these times, and much longer, under the care and tuition of parents, clearly indicating thereby our inexperience and want of capacity to govern ourselves. In short, in morals, as in everything else, our knowledge is progressive, and whoever desires to be a proficient in that science will find that experience, application, and good sense are at least as requisite as they are to the learning of any other inferior art or science. Nor does the nature and circumstances of human life by any means require what Mr. Locke assumes to be necessary as an evidence of innate moral principles, i.e., that they should be so born with us as to be instantaneously perceptible in the forms of indisputably true propositions. For though all our faculties of mind and body be born with us, yet as the most perfect use, and highest perfection, of any one of them is not naturally requisite or useful in infancy or childhood, God having created both our minds and bodies in a progressive, and not in a perfect or full grown state; to object against any of them as not innate because it is not born with us perfect or full-grown, is only to object against it because it is not what it was never intended to be; the same objection may as reasonably be made against the innateness of every part or faculty of a man’s body. Your senses may be as strong, as clear, and as perfect, as ever human senses were; your moral sense may be as true, as just, and though all be innate, yet is the knowledge acquired by them progressive, and perfected by slow degrees; nor do I see the least reason for excluding the moral sense out of this predicament. For my part, I can perceive nothing in all this but what is entirely natural, and quite consonant to the condition and circumstances of humanity.
Here he paused.
I cannot dissent from you, said I. Yet you know Mr. Locke speaks of soldiers in armies,[xiii] and even of whole nations whom he supposes to be entirely devoid of all conscience or any moral sentiment.
He does so, replied he, but that is but a continuation of the same error, and must be answered by the same kind of reasoning we have already employed; of which, perhaps by this time, you have heard more than enough.
I assured him of his mistake, and begged him to proceed, and he continued thus:
If there were really whole nations, as Mr. Locke contends,[xiv] (confiding in the wonderful stories of marvelous travelers) that coolly, deliberately, and without any remorse at all could destroy their own children, and if such actions were not the effects of some gloomy and horrid superstitions, or some very pressing fears of shame or want, or of some corrupt affections, or violent and unruly passions, it would certainly be a very extraordinary phenomenon, and so very contrary to the nature and conduct of every other species of creatures in the world that we know of, that it would be a very odious and disgraceful peculiarity in that species of animals which has generally been esteemed the noblest upon earth.
I must own my nature shudders when I read what Mr. Locke seems to describe with so much coldness and indifference. He desires us to “view an army at the sacking of a town, and see what observation, or sense of moral principles, or what touch of conscience (they feel) for all the outrages they do. Robberies, murders, rapes, are the sports of men set at liberty from censure.” All the other cruelties which he continues to describe in the same page he very unnaturally presumes to be done without scruple, without any remorse at all. Could anything be more cruelly unjust to others than to presume thus much? Could anything be more unphilosophical? Unjust to others because his own heart, I will believe for his honor, could never exhibit to himself a capability of perpetrating the crimes he mentions without scruple or without any remorse at all. Unphilosophical, because lightly deeming them the sports of men set at liberty from censure, he does not endeavor to investigate their causes and show them to be the effects of what they really are effects: in war, of furious passions, heated imaginations, and turbulent appetites; in the other cases, of gloomy and debasing superstitions, of strong fears of shame or want, or, of some other perverted affection, or urgent and forcible passion. But why he should presume that after such actions men feel no remorse at all I know not; it is undoubtedly a mere presumption without any rational evidence, for I am certain Mr. Locke could have no evidence of any such thing in himself.
It is true, indeed, that while men continue under the influence of strong affections, violent passions, or enthusiastic illusions, they are but little sensible of the operations of conscience within them; but to infer from hence that they have no conscience, no internal moral sense, would certainly be a very hasty and injudicious conclusion; because we might with just as much reason infer they have no eyes, no ears, no feeling, for under the same influence of such affections, passions, and illusions men frequently can neither see, hear, or feel.
I gave an assenting motion.
When we speak, said he, more within compass of our own experience and knowledge of human nature, we can speak with more certainty and with better evidence to ourselves, to our friends, and to those who are of the same nation, or of the same quarter of the world with ourselves. But when we range about the earth with voyagers and travelers who are generally but too well disposed to fancy things to be wonderful and extraordinary which they are unused to, and who are, most of them, but very unqualified to give us just accounts of the laws, customs, and religions of nations; who, if they were qualified, seldom stay long enough anywhere either to learn the language or understand the manners of the people whom they visit, and who can only judge, and that grossly, of the effects which come under their observation, but of whole causes they must often be ignorant or but very incompetent judges; I say when we range about the earth with them, taking their strange accounts for indisputable facts, we must surely be very well inclined to swallow anything to serve our present purpose.
The truth is this, that if there were such nations, such creatures in the form of men, as these monster-loving voyagers tell us of, and as Mr. Locke seems so easily to believe there are, and who could perpetrate, as he assumes all the unnatural barbarities he names without scruple, or without any remorse at all, the only rational inference to be drawn from it is that they are not of the same species with ourselves, for they most undoubtedly differ extremely from all that we know of humanity within the compass of our own experience and of our own internal feelings. In short, any unprejudiced man would find it as easy to believe that there were whole nations born deaf or blind, or without any of the senses.
I must confess, replied I, after what has been said on the universality of the senses and of the moral sense, and after what Mr. Locke himself advances concerning the impossibility of men’s understanding each other in discourse unless their simple ideas were the same; I think there can be no doubt of his mistake in this question. However, with your leave, I will still trouble you a little longer.
Mr. Locke, after explaining to us the nature of pain and pleasure,[xv] and informing us that “these like other simple ideas cannot be described nor their names defined, the way of knowing them being as of the simple ideas of the senses, only by experience:” concludes in the next section, “things then are good or evil only in reference to pleasure or pain.”
You mention this, no doubt, said he, as a thing about which you are not satisfied. And it is certainly, in a moral sense, but a very gross account of good and evil, and even in a physical sense it will not bear scrutiny.
Though it be true that pain or pleasure do, immediately or ultimately, result from all our actions as moral agents, yet to conclude generally that things are good or evil only in reference to pleasure or pain is a very considerable error. For in a moral view things are really good, or really evil, according as they serve or injury, or tend to serve or injure, the true interests of humanity, independently of the pain or pleasure that may accompany them. Pleasure or pain, simply considered, do not constitute what is morally good, or evil, in our nature; they are only concomitants of our good or evil actions, and more often ultimately than immediately. For the pains of vice and the pleasures of virtue are never so sensibly felt in the pursuit as after the accomplishment.
Many things are morally good and productive of the best moral effects although accompanied with much pain and anxiety. As, when our affections are disordered and misplaced, and our indulged passions are become turbulent and unruly, so that the oppressed voice of nature can hardly be heard in us. Who is not sensible that nature thus overstrained and thrown out of her true and proper course cannot be brought back again to a due temper and just balance without much painful attention and perseverance? Things, therefore, are not morally good or evil only in reference to pleasure or pain. And as much may be said physically, and with as good reasons, for there are many painful and troublesome operations in physic which are very conducive and even quite necessary to the good and health of the body.
True, said I. But do you, then, deny that pain is evil, and pleasure is good, in an abstracted sense?
In these abstruse questions, replied he, we are apt to be puzzled by the abuse of words; and the present difficulty is of that sort. That pain is grievous there can be no doubt, and if we confine the sense of the word evil to signify grievous only, then pain is evil; but when we extend the sense of the word evil and make it signify all evil, moral and physical, or leave it to signify, indeterminately, what everyone fancies to be evil, then to say that pain is evil is not true. Pain is that sort of evil which is grievous to the sufferer, but pain, as we have shown, both morally and physically, is frequently productive of very great good to mankind. So pleasure, abstractedly, is delightful, which indeed is only saying that pleasure is what it is. But when we say that pleasure is good, that must depend upon the signification we give to the word good. If by good we mean only pleasant, then it is indisputable, but if by good we mean morally right, just, or reasonable, or in a physical sense, conducive to health, nothing can be more clearly false.
Here we were interrupted by the presence of the ladies who came out to meet us; when our conversation turning upon more agreeable things, our discourses on these subjects ended, and were not renewed during my stay in the country.
[i] [Translation by C.D. Yonge added by editor:] All these things require to be looked at, and also it is the part of a great and wise man, O judges, when he has taken in his hand his judicial tablet, to think that he is not alone, and that it is not lawful for him to do whatever he wishes; but that he must employ in his deliberations law, equity, religion, and good faith; that he must discard lust, hatred, envy, fear, and all evil passions, and must think that consciousness implanted in one’s mind, which we have received from the immortal gods, and which cannot be taken from us, to be the most powerful motive of all. And if that is a witness of virtuous counsels and virtuous actions throughout our whole lives, we shall live without any fear, and in the greatest honour.
[ii] Essay, Octavo, p. 34.
[iii] p. 34.
[iv] p. 47.
[v] Mr. Locke, in Essay, Vol. II, pages 174 to 177, has clearly pointed out the difficulty of fixing with precision the meaning of moral words.
[vi] Essay, p. 39.
[vii] p. 105.
[viii] See also, p. 185. Chap. XX
[ix] Vol. II, page 28, &c.
[x] p. 34.
[xi] Essay XXVI, p. 20, 30, and 31.
[xii] See also, p. 185 and 330.
[xiii] Essay, p. 34.
[xiv] Essay, p. 34.
[xv] Essay, p. 135.